Opening Day for the Calgary Stampeders will be something like a therapy session for the team.
While there’s always the raw excitement of playing a real game that kick-starts the new year, the Stamps’ season opener will serve as the first step in the long road to redemption.
In 2013, as you know, the Stampeders saw a great regular season come unglued in the Western Final, in a loss that has been in the minds of everyone involved in the franchise throughout the entire off-season.
There is plenty of reason to think the Stampeders are very capable of redemption.
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An examination of Calgary’s roster reveals quality and depth virtually across the board.
The obvious strength is the team’s running game.
Jon Cornish is the league’s Outstanding Player, top Canadian and two-time reigning rushing champion, and there is every reason to believe he can match or exceed his achievements of last year.
The 2,000-yard mark is certainly a distinct possibility. Working with Cornish in the backfield is local product Matt Walter and free agent signing Jock Sanders.
Sanders is also expected to be a primary returner for the team.
Bo Levi Mitchell, now in his third year with the Stamps, will be handing Cornish and friends the ball.
Mitchell won a training camp battle for the starting position against incumbent Drew Tate. He was 3-0 in spot starts last year, and took the league by storm with an impressive debut in Winnipeg in Week 5.
Mitchell is just 24 and has already become a fan favourite with his confident-not-cocky demeanor.
The receiving corps will be an asset, as well. Speedster Maurice Price and big-man Jeff Fuller will stretch the field for Mitchell, while Marquay McDaniel earned his first 1,000-yard season last year, and will be an important part of the group.
Canadian Brad Sinopoli has made the jump from quarterback to receiver very smoothly, and veteran Nik Lewis continues to recover from a season-ending ankle injury suffered in 2013.
His return to prominence may be a work in progress.
Calgary’s offensive line has undergone a transformation.
Gone are J’Micheal Deane (expansion draft), Jon Gott (trade to Ottawa) and Dmitri Tsoumpas (retired). Those departures have opened the door for 2013 first pick Brander Craighead and local product Spencer Wilson to assume guard positions for the team.
2013 Most Outstanding Rookie Brett Jones anchors at center while Dan Federkeil and Stanley Bryant hold down the tackle positions.
The defensive will feature rush end Charleston Hughes. The veteran enjoyed a banner year in 2013, and he will have a new bookend on the defensive line as Shawn Lemon has taken over the other end position for the departed Cordaro Law.
On the inside, Cory Mace and Demonte’ Bolden return from injury-shortened seasons a year ago.
The linebackers are led by the venerable Juwan Simpson, and he will be flanked by Keon Raymond and Deron Mayo. The Stampeders secondary has undergone some change, not only of personnel but of ratio as well.
The unit will be an all-import grouping, as former BC Lion Josh Bell takes over at safety following Eric Fraser’s departure in the expansion draft.
Fred Bennett and newcomer Buddy Jackson will patrol the corners, while Jamar Wall and Brandon Smith will play half. The kicking game remains in great shape with league special teams Player of the Year Rene Paredes handling field goals and kickoffs.
Rob Maver won the all-star punting nod in the league, and is poised for more production in 2014.
The Stampeders appear to have the personnel in place for another big season. But they and their fans know the season will be judged on where they are on November 30.
Mark Stephen is Sports Director of CHQR Radio in Calgary and has broadcast Calgary Stampeder games since 1996. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkonFootball.